Incredibly JK Rowlings’ new novel The Casual Vacancy – her first book that is aimed at adults – is already a bestseller. More than one million copies of the book were already ordered before the book was published. But will it live up to its hype? And will JK Rowling successfully manage to do what so many authors have failed to pull off – can she switch genre?
Early reviews are mixed. The Daily Mirror Review says: “Rowling didn’t have to write this novel but she has done a rather brave thing and pulled it off magnificently.” The Guardian says the book is ‘no masterpiece’ but despite its regular outbursts of four-letter words, is ‘a solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel’ and ‘not bad at all: intelligent, womanlike and often funny.” However, based on this review by Alison Pearson in The Telegraph and others which talk about the predictable and overlong plot – Jan Moir on the Daily Mail says it is ‘bogged down with details and a confusing rash of characters,’ it doesn’t sound the sort of book for me.
The prose also sounds contrived. A review in the The Herald, Scotland by Alan Taylor reveals these quotes: “Disgust rose in Samantha like vomit” … “A pause rolled across the table like a fresh tablecloth…”
Meanwhile, writing in The Telegraph Alison Pearson also recites one paragraph from it: “His knuckles in her belly as he undid his own flies – she tried to scream and he smacked her across the face – the smell of him was thick in her nostrils as he growled in her ear, ‘F—–’ shout and I’ll cut yer.’” She adds it is also ‘well observed’ but also full of cruelty and despair. “A teenager is raped by her own mother’s heroin dealer… One teenager cuts herself to relieve her misery, another commits suicide. Online pornography is described in gynaecological detail.” Unfortunately this sort of graphic writing doesn’t ‘sell’ this book to me.
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Clearly it’s a far cry from Harry Potter or the original description – The Casual Vacancy follows what happens when an idyllic fictional town of Pagford is ripped apart by a Parish election. Publishers Little Brown claim her new novel, which JK Rowling says was inspired by her own experience before she became famous when she lived on benefits, is ‘blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising’. It is being promoted on the Amazon website as ‘A big novel about a small town’ and ‘the work of a storyteller like no other.’
Back to whether or not The Casual Vacancy will actually be a success for those who enjoy reading this type of fiction: switching genres can be fraught with difficulty. As described in another recent in-depth article in the Daily Telegraph on this subject, most publishers simply want their authors to churn out one book after the other in the same tried, trusted genre, which has proved to be lucrative.
But of course just writing to pay the bills isn’t something that needs worry Ms Rowling these days. After all, having amassed a fortune estimated to be more than £620million from her seven Harry Potter books for children, JK Rowling need never bother to write another novel again if she chose not to.
She admits the fact she is rich gives her the freedom to write as she wants. However, she is still taking a risk in writing a completely different book and that she has chosen to publish it under her own name could be seen as a double-edged sword. Many authors actually write under two or even three different names. So they will write one type of novel under their own name for example and in a different genre with a pseudonym.
This has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand you can’t trade in on your already successful books. For example, JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy could be disappointingly poor but over one million people are already queuing up to buy it because it’s been written by her. On the other hand, if she’d secretly written a book under a different name and that had also been a publishing sensation then she would know she truly is a brilliant writer who can literally turn her hand to any genre.
As it happens, even if this new book outsells the phenomenally successful Fifty Shades of Grey she isn’t really going to know if that is because The Casual Vacancy is really a literary work of art or if because she has such an enormous legion of loyal fans.
Whatever, The Casual Vacancy is certainly set to be scrutinised by literary critics in numerous reviews – all of which will be asking the same question, Has she pulled it off?
There are plenty of examples where authors famous for one genre have successfully turned their hands to something completely different. Ian Fleming wrote the 007 Bond books for adults and the equally clever Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for children. Roald Dahl penned the brilliant children’s books Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG – while also writing the adult classic Someone Like You as well as dark adult short stories that became TV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And Anthony Horowitz is famed for his wonderful children’s books about Alex Rider as well as screenwriting the adult Foyle’s War.
Yet at the same time, the book world is littered with authors whose foray into a different genre didn’t fare so well. For example the late Joan Aitken whose Wolves of Willoughby Chase delighted generations, but her adult novels were less highly regarded.
“It’s about entering a mindset,” Anthony Horrowitz tells The Daily Telegraph, “It’s not about the choice of language. It’s not even about the content, although of course both of these come into consideration. It’s more fundamental. It’s about attitude. Children’s books have a purity about them, a simplicity. There’s less clutter, less to worry about.”
Whether or not The Casual Vacancy will work without the magic and razzmatazz of Harry Potter remains to be seen. Whether or not The Casual Vacancy is a spellbinding story in its own right will also be muddied by the fact it’s zoomed into the best seller charts before it’s even hit the shelves. But I doubt publishers Little Brown or Ms Rowling will worry too much over this little detail.
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling is published by Little Brown and is available from Amazon.
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